The Habit Loop: How Habits Work

The human brain and habitsThink of the human brain as a cut onion. At the center of the onion is a part of the brain called the basal ganglia. At the surface of the onion is a part of the brain called the cerebral cortex.The cerebral cortex does all the complex thinking. The basal ganglia is the part which is involved in the creation of habits.

So when we are learning a new skill, such as, learning to drive a car, initially both the cerebral cortex and the basal ganglia work furiously. But with time, as we learn how to drive a car, the activity in the cerebral cortex ceases but the basal ganglia continues to work and takes control of the activity. Driving a car has become a habit. The brain however does not cede control always. It only cedes control to the basal ganglia when a particular chunk of behaviour starts or ends.So in the example of driving a car, the brain gives up control to the basal ganglia once you start the car and you reverse into the road. It stops once you have finished your ride and parked your car.If an unfamiliar situation arises, the cerebral cortex also starts acting. This is illustrated in the figure below:

Brain activity during habits

This process within our brains is what is called a habit loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.Over time, this loop—cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward—becomes more and more automatic. A habit is formed.

Habit loopThe importance of understanding the habit loop is because you now know that when a habit emerges the brain stops fully participating in decision making. Habits can be changed. They are not destiny. They can be ignored, changed or replaced. But you have to change the habit loop by interfering with the cue, routine or reward to do that. But habits don’t die, in most cases. they are encoded in the brain. This is both useful and harmful. Bad habits are still encoded in the depth of our brains and given the right cue and rewards, they will reappear.

So if you think a habit needs changing or you want to develop a new habit, think about what I have written. Cues, routines, rewards and repeating the same are the keys to making or breaking habits.